No Simple Truth: The Reverend MacSparran and his Slaves

The Rev. James MacSparran doted on his slaves — and he beat them.

The Rev. James MacSparran doted on his slaves — and he beat them.

When Stepney, a trusted worker, drowned in a South Kingstown pond, MacSparran was heartbroken. ”My first, best and most principal Servant” is dead, he wrote in 1745.

But when another slave, Hannibal, stayed out all night, MacSparran stripped him to the waist and whipped him.

For nearly three years the Irish missionary, a rector at St. Paul’s Church, kept a diary of his time in southern Rhode Island. The Anglican minister, a fixture in the wealthy planter community, owned several slaves and a 100-acre farm on the Pettaquamscutt River.

His diary, now at the University of Rhode Island, has attracted scholars for years, in part because it provides a rare glimpse into the life of a Rhode Island master and his slaves.

Original manuscript of Reverend James MacSparran’s diary from the 1740’s and 1750’s.

In particular, MacSparran was troubled by the sexual life of his slaves. In one passage, the minister notes one of his slaves is ”out a whoring.” The slave Maroca is whipped for receiving gifts from a suitor at another farm, and when Maroca has a baby, MacSparran gives it away.

Hannibal continually defies MacSparran. He stays out late and runs away. ”I stript and gave him a few Lashes till he begged,” writes MacSparran. The minister later has Hannibal placed in ”pothooks” — a metal collar designed to hamper movement. Finally, MacSparran sells the difficult slave.

The diary contradicts earlier descriptions of the region as a ”slave paradise” run by kind masters.

Recent scholars have used the diary, slave laws and advertisements for runaway slaves to show that enslaved Africans often resented — and resisted — their status as chattel property and unpaid workers.

In the mid-18th century, for instance, more than a half-dozen slaves ran away from Hazard homes and farms, says historian Robert K. Fitts. Many, owned by the Hazards and others, were identified by their scars in newspaper ads.

A 13-year-old boy who ran away from Jonathan Hazard in South Kingstown had a ”hard” countenance and a ”large scar on the top of one of his feet.” A young slave named Dimas, who ran from Lodowick Updike, had a scar that ran from his nose to a corner of his mouth. Others bore scars on their wrists and foreheads.

The Narragansett planters ”followed methods of slave control common throughout the British colonies,” says Fitts in his 1998 book, Inventing New England’s Slave Paradise, Master/Slave Relations in Eighteenth-Century Narragansett, Rhode Island.

”Whites relied on physical punishment, legal codes and the threat of sale to punish uncooperative slaves.”

An icon for a runaway slave from a page of the Newport Mercury, 1758.

MacSparran’s account attracted Jamestown filmmaker Elizabeth Delude-Dix who used his words, Trinity Rep veteran William Damkoehler and four black actors to make a seven-minute documentary called No Simple Truth: A Minister and his Slave in Colonial Rhode Island. The film aired last September on Rhode Island PBS, Channel 36.

For Delude-Dix, who grew up in Cranston, revisiting the past comes naturally; her background is in historic preservation.

”History is not something that occurred a long time ago,” she says. ”It has an impact on our world today. Slavery as an institution built this country.” It also split the country, she says. ”We have a lot of unanswered questions about why there is this radical divide between white America and black America.”

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That relationship is defined in the last scene of No Simple Truth. Delude-Dix reads the final sentences while a camera lingers on a stone cross in the original churchyard of St. Paul’s Church in what is now known as Saunderstown.

”A monument stands in recognition of Rev. MacSparran’s many accomplishments as a churchman,” she says. ”His slaves are nearby, in graves unmarked.”

Paul Davis is a former staff writer for The Providence Journal.

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